Tony Dearman, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was appointed director of the Bureau of Indian Education on November 2, taking over a troubled agency in the midst of radical reforms. He talked to ICTMN about where the BIE is headed and how he plans to make it a student- and school-focused organization.
BIE is responsible for the education of nearly 50,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in 183 tribally-controlled and bureau-operated elementary and secondary schools and dormitories and it oversees two institutions of higher education, Haskell Indian Nations University and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.
What are your priorities as you take the helm at BIE?
We’re going to continue our support efforts and continue to build partnerships with tribal leaders and educators to improve services to our students to produce positive student outcomes.
We really need to let people know that we exist, get out there and get some support and create partnerships and collaborate with a lot of organizations inside and outside the department to bring attention to our system, to our kids.
When you talk about partnerships and collaboration, are you mostly talking about having tribes take over schools?
I’m talking about within the BIA because in our system—our facilities, for example, everybody knows that we’ve struggled with the facilities aspects of our schools in some locations—we have to work with BIA because they control the money.
If a tribe decides that they want to take over the schools, then we will be there to provide technical assistance so they will be successful. This is not a push to make all the tribes take over the schools. It’s not that at all. But it is to promote sovereignty and if a tribe does say we can do a better job, we want to run our schools, it’s our job to help. That’s our trust responsibility. We’ll be there to help walk them through it.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the BIE?
Right now we are in the middle of our reform and we’ve got to get all of our positions filled. But it’s more than just hiring. It’s about changing the mindset. We want to change the way we do business. We want to be a service organization and really have a student and school focus.
[We’re going to] listen to our tribes and develop programs that are going to support our schools and our students for a positive outcome.
So when you talk about changing the mindset, could you go into a little more detail?
In the past we’ve had a one-size-fits-all type system. At the school level, [regulations] have been pushed down and we had to make them fit us. Right now what I’m saying about a change of mindset is that we need to have individual plans for our schools, for our tribes, because not everybody has the same needs.
We’ve had some great, hardworking employees. They’ve been working extremely hard to do these reorganization and reform efforts. And a lot of our employees have been pulling the load of two and three people. We have strengths within our organization that we really need to utilize instead of jumping to contractors outside our system. We have some really good experts within our system.
Is there still a problem with getting enough good teachers into BIE schools?
We do have some remote locations. We’ve been working with a contractor to help us go out and recruit. And that’s one of our efforts as far as training our principals. In the past we’ve hired them and given them a key and said good luck. We really need to spend some time with them and let them know what their authority is in terms of recruiting and retaining our staff, our teachers.
I think a lot of the problem is the way we advertise. We need to create an outreach to our universities that have a lot of Indian educators and let people know that we exist.
Are BIE salaries competitive?
Definitely, they’re very competitive.
What would you like people to know about you as a professional as you begin this job?
I’d like the people to know that I’ve worked in several different levels in our school systems. I’ve been a science teacher, a coach, a principal at a tribally-controlled school. I’ve been a superintendent at a bureau-operated boarding school. At Riverside Indian School we had grades 4 through 12 from about 23 different states and anywhere from 70 to 80 different tribes depending on the time of year.
So I’ve been on the inside as far as being in our schools. I’ve also been an acting educational line officer for the tribes in the Northwest for Seattle and an educational line officer in New Mexico South in Albuquerque. And I’ve been an associate deputy director [of the BIE], so I have a lot of experience on a lot of different levels in the system and I really feel like it gives me an advantage in knowing how our system works and areas that we can improve.
Can you give us an example?
At a boarding school like Riverside Indian School, for example, the students were our children. We were responsible for clothing, medical care, emotional needs, everything. We would have our kids on our campus seven days a week 24 hours a day, so we had to come up with activities, and purchase things like movie tickets. [But when we submitted our purchase orders] we’d get a lot of pushback. The federal government doesn’t pay for movie tickets. We would have to explain we’re a school [and fight to get those things for our kids], so I’ve experienced the positives and the negatives at different levels of our system.
I will say on a positive note, under this administration the relationship between BIA and BIE has really improved. We do have people that understand the schools now and it’s only going to get better.
What else would you like people to know?
I want people to know that we have many, many challenges ahead of us, but with challenges come a lot of opportunities and I’m excited about the opportunities. I think that BIE right now is at a place that we haven’t been in a long time. or ever. And I think we’re really close to being a student-focused, school-serving organization working with tribes.